When many people feel the first hints of an oncoming cold or when the flu season looms, they immediately run to their doctor. Others do nothing, come down with a full-blown case of cold, bronchitis, pneumonia, or flu–and then go to see their doctor. Thousands (millions?) of others, however, reach out at those first signs for something much simpler, vitamin C supplements. And they do so (even if they don’t know it) because of research conducted by one man: Linus Pauling.
Pauling is like Jekyll and Hyde, and people either loved or hated him. Both his scientific research and his political positions caused polar reactions among those who knew him.
Linus Pauling was born on February 28, 1901, in Portland, Oregon. His father operated his own drug store, and that might have had something to do with the love that Linus developed for chemistry and health. He was always conducting experiments with a friend’s chemistry set and in his science classes in school.
When he was 15, Pauling already had amassed enough credits to graduate, but he lacked two history courses. He asked his principal if he could take the two classes at the same time and was refused, so he dropped out without getting his diploma. Nonetheless, he worked at various jobs (grocery boy, machinist, etc.) to raise money for college so he could become a chemist, and soon Oregon State University admitted him. (His high school awarded him his diploma 45 years after he dropped out–and had won two Nobel Prizes!)
In 1925, Pauling was awarded his PhD in physical chemistry. Then, on a Guggenheim Fellowship, he studied under famed physicists in Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. Upon his return, he taught at Cal Tech. In the late 1920s, he began publishing the results of his research of chemical bonding. During World War II, he conducted research for the military. He also wrote a textbook titled The Nature of the Chemical Bond, and in 1954 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
Pauling’s chemical interests then turned to the applications of vitamin C to health problems. He conducted research on how colds and the flu reacted to mega-doses of vitamin C. Later, his research shifted to the application of the vitamin to treat cancer. Generally, the medical establishment regarded him as a quack. Even the Mayo Clinic repudiated his claims, but he fired back that their own experiments were not conducted according to the same standards (e.g, not taking large doses and taking the vitamin orally rather than intravenously), so they could not expect to get the positive results he reported. Other people, however (holistic health practitioners and common citizens), began to turn to vitamin C rather than traditional medicine to treat their common colds and flu, and they affirmed that Pauling’s findings proved effective for them. He published his research on the uses of vitamin C in mega-doses, including atherosclerosis and angina, in How to Live Longer and Feel Better. He made vitamin C a commonly consumed dietary supplement.
After the war, however, Pauling’s activities began to take a different turn. He began to promote nuclear disarmament and to call for an end to war under any circumstances. He became the darling of every Communist peace effort that came along. He circulated petitions against war generally, nuclear war specifically, and was outspoken in his opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. He even contacted North Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh personally. He won his second Nobel Prize, this one the Peace Prize, in 1962 and the Lenin Peace Prize in 1968 as a result of those efforts.
Pauling’s critics, both political and scientific, viewed him as an apologist for Soviet-style communism. The National Review called him a collaborator and “fellow traveler” of the Soviets. He sued William Rusher, the publisher, and William F. Buckley, the editor, but lost both the law suit and his subsequent appeal.
Despite the fact that Pauling had himself taken massive doses of vitamin C, he died of prostate cancer on August 19, 1994, at the age of 93. Had his regimen of daily massive doses of vitamin C contributed to his longevity? No one knows, and the debate over the effectiveness of vitamin C supplements continues.
But on this date in 1954, Pauling received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. And be the merits or demerits of his second Nobel Prize whatever they might be, he is the only person to have been awarded two unshared Nobel Prizes and only one of two people who have been awarded Nobel Prizes in different fields. (In my humble opinion, I think he would have contributed so much more to the world had he stuck with chemistry and left politics out of it! Whenever I begin to feel the first signs of a cold, I reach for my vitamin C.)